The A to Z Challenge – 2023 — Z is for Zanzibar

My hobby was something that only a select few had, and that was searching rubbish dumps for useful items.

But there was one exception. 

I didn’t search the average rubbish dump, only those I knew were used by organisations and companies that dumped old technology,

If I was lucky, it would be a government department, and the stuff deemed no longer useful to anyone.  I often found old computers, without memory or storage of course, but otherwise intact, and I had an excellent museum of computers, from almost the very first.

It was amazing what some companies disposed of, and in one instance I picked a complete, working, mainframe computer.  It filled a substantial part of the barn.

Then there were a half dozen communication radios, not the sort that had a short range, no, these devices had almost worldwide coverage.  They were also long-wave radio receivers, and I was able to pick up AM radio stations all over the word, and, sometimes, CB transmissions.  It came with several sets of manuals, very thick books that made it daunting reading, so they remained in a wooden crate until boredom set in.

But the radios, were, for now, my new toys to play with.

Late one night I was switching between frequencies, looking for anything that might be interesting, and just caught the end of a transmission, “This is a code Zanzibar, I repeat a Code Zanzibar.  Will call same time tomorrow.”

Code Zanzibar?

It had to be someone out there somewhere in the world playing a prank.

Perhaps there would be more, so I would tune in tomorrow, fifteen minutes earlier to see if there was any more to the message.

Meantime, full of curiosity, I wondered if there would be anything in any of the books that came with the radios.

I didn’t sleep that night, going through each one practically page by page because the indexes were missing.  It was one of those unexplainable oddities, that made me wonder if there was anything in them that the owners hadn’t wanted anyone to find.  That in itself seemed even more odd because if it was the case, why didn’t they destroy them?

Somewhere around shortly before dawn, tired, and bored from reading, I fell asleep.

After yet another bollocking from my father about letting my foolish hobby get in the way of work, I had to work extra hard to make up for it and was too tired to continue my studies.  I meant to read more before the transmission time, but luckily remembered to set the alarm,

When the alarm went off, I woke with a jolt and nearly forgot why I set it.  I got to the radio just before the transmission.

Then I heard it.

“This is a code Zanzibar; I repeat a Code Zanzibar.  Attack is imminent, I repeat attack is imminent.”

I flicked the switch to send a message, and said, “This is station M.  This is station M.  Can you identify yourself?”

I had discovered in the documentation that the radio set had been set up in what was designated Station M, and that it was one of 26 around the country.

There was no reply, just the same message, “This is a code Zanzibar; I repeat a Code Zanzibar.  Attack is imminent, I repeat attack is imminent.” For exactly three minutes, then the sign-off, “Will call same time tomorrow.”

Back to the books, I was in the middle of the sixth of seven volumes, at page 1,457, of 2,500 when I saw the heading “Warning Codes”, and then shuffled through 26 pages until I found “Zanzibar”.

When I read the explanation my heart almost stopped.

“Zanzibar – The threat of an alien attack is imminent – designates that actual alien aircraft have been positively identified and heading towards earth”

What the…

When I read some of the other codes, it showed varying descriptions for a number of events involving aliens, and at first, I thought this referred to other countries than our own, but then, on another page I realised that aliens meant aliens from outer space.

And the fact everyone but a few debunked the idea there was other life out there, it made no sense.  That transmission could not have come from anywhere on Earth.  At least, I didn’t think so, because there had been nothing in the documentation about similar stations in other countries.

Still utterly gobsmacked, I kept reading and found a page where certain information hadn’t been redacted.  That was something else.  Before the books had been thrown away, a lot of information had been redacted.

Why hadn’t it been destroyed, if it was that sensitive?

This page had a name, Professor Edward Bones.  It looked like it had been missed.

Perhaps I could call and ask him what this all meant.

I spend hours trying to match the surname with the locale of where I found the stuff, thinking the original Station M would be nearby.  It wasn’t easy because the name wasn’t in the current phone book, so I had to dig a little deeper and find where historical phone records were kept.

That got me the Professor’s address and phone number, and the University he worked at.  A search on his name told me he was associated with SETI which had to do with tracking communications, if any, from outer space.

I called the number, but it was decommissioned.  No surprise.  If I did the math, the Professor would be a hundred and twenty-two if he was still alive, I did the next best thing, I went to the address.

It was a hundred and fifty miles, a long way to go and pin hopes on finding something.  The university was on the other side of the country so going there was out of the question.  It was hard enough to get my father to let me have the day off for this trip.

It was a gated community just off the main highway, a group of houses set aside on their own, now looking rather worse for wear.  There was no longer a gate, but the was a guard house, holes on the roof and broken windows, a divided driveway with what was once lawn and flower beds, all now overgrown leading to a fountain in the middle of a roundabout that led, one way to houses, one way to a shopping centre and the other, sports fields.

It looked to me like this was a purpose-built community, perhaps to look after the radio receivers, waiting for a call that may never come.

And just had.

I drove to the Professor’s house and parked out front.  It looked in better condition than those on either side, and when I looked in, saw signs of habitation.  Someone was living in it.  Not the professor’s ghost I hope.

I waited.

It was nearly dark before a battered Ford pickup stopped in the driveway and what looked to be an old man get out.

He saw me as I got out of my car, and come towards him.  He didn’t look surprised, which was worrying.

“Did you know Professor Bones,” I asked?  It was unlikely.

“My father, yes.  Are you from the government?  I have nowhere else to go.”

“No.  I’m not.  Did you know much about what your father did?”

“Why?  Is this going to be another character assassination piece?  Are you a reporter?”

“Me?  No.”

“Then why are you here?”

“I came to ask someone, anyone, if they knew what Cade Zanzibar really means.  It can’t possibly mean there’s an imminent alien invasion.”

His expression changed instantly, and it was clear he did know what it meant.

“How do you know anything about Station M, that was top secret, and no one knows, no one still alive that is, other than a few fools back in Washington.”

“I rescued the radio receivers and documents from a dump.  I collect old technology.  It was just sitting there.  I took it home, connected it up, and listened.  For the last two nights, there’s been this transmission, ‘This is a code Zanzibar; I repeat a Code Zanzibar.  Attack is imminent, I repeat attack is imminent’.

“My God.  Where are they now?”

“My place.”


I told him.

“We have to go.  Now.  Take me.  I’ll fill you in on the way.”

It was the stuff of science fiction comics.  Transmission had been received, many years back, from what was believed an alien race under attack from another.  He hesitated before he said it was believed there was life on Mars, but selling the idea there were Martians didn’t go too well.  However, the government decided to piggyback onto the moon landings, and several other missions, one on the Moon, one to Mars, one to Jupiter and another to Saturn.

Not on the planets. But space stations orbiting the planets, sort of early warning stations.  That first transmission had the implied threat that the aggressive aliens were heading towards Earth.

Apparently not as fast as was suspected.  The stations were built, volunteers were sent on the premise they might never come home, and supplies were sent via a launching pad on the moon.  While we were still discussing the possibility of launching missions to the other planets, it had already been done, And no one knew.

Expect the Professor, who lost the plot when the government shut down the program and virtually abandoned these people in the outer space stations.

And that was the purpose of Station M.  To maintain communications with the space stations, and the moon base.  When they were closed, the stations disappeared.  Where I visited the Professor’s son, that was the whole base, kept isolated, and under very tight security.

“All I can think of is that one of the space stations is still in operation, manned by someone who has to be one of the oldest people alive, or they figured out how to automate a message given certain parameters.  Anyway, if there’s a transmission tonight, we’ll soon find out.”

All I could think of was that I’d just unearthed the biggest secret of all time. One that it was likely I could never tell anyone about.

Unless there really were aliens coming to attack us.

A minute or so later, the transmission came in, “This is a code Zanzibar; I repeat a Code Zanzibar.  Attack is imminent, I repeat attack is imminent”.

Bones had already looked over the units and certified they were in full working order and showed me the sequence of switches that turned on two-way communications.

After the message, he switched to transmit, “This is Station M, repeat, this is Station M receiving you.  Please advise details.”

He switched back to receive and static burst out of the speaker.  This went on for a minute, then a weak voice.  “Is that you Freddie?”

“Yes.  The Prof’s son.  Who are you?”

“Alistair Montgomery.  I was last to arrive when I was six.  There are two of us left.  I think Saturn and Mars have ceased.  What happened back there?”

“Funding.  Lack of results.  Bean-counting accountants thought ramping up for wars at home was more important.  We knew it would happen one day.

“Five years, Freddie.”

“Your transmission?  Code Zanzibar.  Is it relevant, or just to get our attention?”

“It’s real.  We saw about 50 large ships go by on the long-range radar.  Heading for the earth, not moving very fast.  I estimate they would take several days to reach to outer limits of our Thermosphere.”

“They didn’t come to see you?”

“No.  Sad, because I was hoping to be the first to meet an alien.  That might yet be you.”

“Are you going to be OK up there?  I can’t tell you we coming to get you.”

“We knew what we were signing on for.  But it would be nice if you could keep in touch/.”

“Do what I can.  Over and out.”

He went around the back of the unit, and I heard what sounded like the ejecting of a cassette tape.  When he came back, he showed it to me.  “This should make the bastards sit up and take notice.”

He grabbed his coat.  “We have to go.  Take me to the nearest airport.”

We made it outside to the car when three black SUV’s pulled up abruptly and a dozen armed men got out and surrounded us.

Then a man in a suit got out of the lead vehicle and came over.

Bones recognised him.

“I didn’t think it would take you long.  Been monitoring for transmissions, have you?”

“We knew your father didn’t follow orders but had no proof.  Who are you,” he glared at me.

“I rescued the radios.”

He sighed.  “Bloody contractors.  Never do as they’re told.”  He shook his head.  “Cuff them and throw them in the car.”

They might have, had it not been for one minor matter.  In the half-light of night, it suddenly went quite dark, except for the car headlights, until suddenly the whole area was lit up like a movie studio.  We all looked up and…

The aliens had arrived.

©  Charles Heath  2023

Using Hollywood as a source of inspiration

I’m not one for writing Western, I’ll leave the honours for that to Louis L’Amore, whose acquaintance I made when I saw How The West Was Won on the big screen, and then read the book.

That led to reading a few more by Zane Grey, but it was not in the reading of the stories but in the visual splendour of the west depicted in these films that made the actors almost secondary.

But my interest in watching Westerns had been fuelled by the fact my parents watched them on TV, though back in those days, they were in black and white, and starred John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd and, later on, Clint Eastwood among a great many others.

But the mainstay of my interest in the archetypal Western centred on John Wayne whose movies may have almost the same plot line, just a substitution of actors and locations.

Often it was not so much that John Wayne was in it, but the actors he surrounded himself with, like Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, Walter Brennan, and Robert Mitcham, all of whom made the experience all the better.

Films like The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, Rio Bravo, and El Dorado.

Who can forget the vast open spaces, the dry dusty stresses lines with wooden buildings and endless walkways that substituted for footpaths?  Bars in hotels, rooms overlooking the street, havens for sharpshooters, when bad guys outnumber the good guys, and typically the Sherrif who always faced insurmountable odds.

Or the attacks staged by Indians who were routinely killed, in fact, there was not one film I saw where they ended up winning any battle. Only in recent years did they get a more sympathetic role, one film that comes to mind is Soldier Blue, which may have painted them as savages, but a possible reason why they ended up so.

But for those without Indians, there were plenty of others whose intentions were anything but for the good of the settlers.

A lot of films ended in a classic gunfight.  High Noon, 3:10 to Yuma are two, where the story led to gun fights between good and bad in unlikely places like El Dorado or Rio Bravo.

There are countless others I could name, like Shane, or became to be called, the spaghetti westerns with Clint Eastwood, or last but not least, The Magnificent Seven, or Once Upon a time in the west.

All have contributed to a picture in my mind of how the American West was, fearsome men, beleaguered sheriffs, people with good intentions, and those driven by greed and power. All of this plays out in the harshest of conditions where life and death could be determined by a wrong word or a stray bullet.

And let’s not forget the role of the guns, Colt, Winchester, and Remington.  And Smith and Wesson, and the gunslingers of the day. Some were good, but most according to the film world were bad.

So, against the lifelong interest of watching and reading about the archetypal view of the old West, shall I attempt to put pen to paper. Thank God it will be a work of fiction because I don’t think there are many who knew what it was really like.

A photograph from the inspirational bin – 41

It’s hard to believe this location is just a few miles from the heart of Hobart, on the road to the top of Mt Wellington.

We were there in winter, not the best time to be going south towards Antarctica, but then, it’s hot most of the time here, and we have to get away from it sometime.

But, what story does this photograph conjure up?

The first thing that comes to mind is staggering out of the forest, three days lost, freezing cold, onto a road, the first sign of civilization, and hope of being rescued.

A car comes…

Yes, it’s that sort of story. Not a rescue but something a whole lot worse.

Then there’s that variation, that the kidnapper locked you up in a cabin deep in the forest with only foot tracks to follow. You break out, get lost trying to find the right trail back and stumble onto the road at exactly the same time the kidnapper is returning.

Talk about bad luck.

Second, you’re part of a work retreat, you know the sort of thing, where everyone gets together in a remote place and bond. Except there’s a killer among you, and it’s a race against time to find him or her, and the bodies mount up.

That’s a fascinating story, if you were there, that you might take to the grave…

…sooner than you think.

Third, and probably the best of the three, two people wanting to get away from everything and rediscover what it is they lost.

If only we could get the time to do that, with kids, ever-increasing bills, ever-increasing demands from employers and a government hell-bent on sending everyone to the poverty line.

Damn, I knew that story was too good to be true!

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to see the planets – Episode 23

Where did that ship come from?

When I stepped out on to the bridge number one was waiting, “we received a distress call a few minutes ago, and we’ve been trying to get the ship back to get the details. Then, it just appeared.

Not far off the Port bow, another ship, about half the size of ours was not moving, and it was clear we were doing a circuit to check he outside if the ship.

“It’s the ‘Ionosphere’, one of the research vessels, but according to our records, it should be off Jupiter.”

“Is there anyway we can find out if anyone is alive on board?”

“Our sensors are not clever enough to discern life forms, at least nit yet.  They’re working on it, and it’s going to be in the next upgrade.  We basically restricted to what’s going on outside.”

“Then we’d better send a shuttle, see what’s going on.  Gather a team, take the military rather than security, and a systems expert, and head it up yourself.”

“I’ll let you know when we depart.”

“Make it sooner rather than later, there may be people who need help.  Better add a doctor to the team.”

He nodded and headed towards the elevator, calling up the shuttle bay.

The ‘Ionosphere’ was one of three older research vessels with a crew of about 290, mostly scientists.  The fact it was drifting was not a good sign.

Chalmers was the duty scientist on the bridge, and I went over to his station.

“Are you familiar with the ‘Ionosphere’?”

“Yes sir.  Spent about 6 months on the first exploration to the edge of our universe, surveying and analysing Pluto.”

“Am I correcting on assuming she was lately at Jupiter?”

“Yes sir.  She had been deployed to Saturn first, then Jupiter.”

“You hadn’t heard officially or unofficially she was due back at earth space dock any time soon?”

“No sir.  In fact I was just communicating with a colleague on board a day or so back, who said they had, or though they had discovered an anomaly in space, and had deviated towards it to investigate.  Whatever it was, it had sent some of their instruments crazy.”

Number one’s voice came over the communication system, announcing the shuttle had left the bay and was encountered to the other ship.  A minute later we could see it.

In the same instant, a thought crossed my mind, one that might explain how the ship was not far from us, and on the same course.

“Can you tell me if if Jupiter and Uranus are in alignment, along our projected trajectory?”

“As a matter of fact, they are.”

I was not the greatest scientific mind on the ship, that was why we had a first class scientific team aboard, but I could think outside the box, where some of the scientific minds were closed to ‘out there’ possibilities.

That’s why it didn’t seem impossible to me that the Ionosphere ‘hitched a ride’ in what might be called a wormhole, that sort of anomaly that Jerome Kennedy had been talking about.  It struck me that these worm holes could be like black holes and ships could enter them and come out the other side, a very great distance away, in a very short time.

It would explain how the enemy ship had disappeared, but it didn’t explain why we were able to follow a trail.

That would be a matter for Kennedy

Number one was back on the communications system with a report. “We’ve docked and come on board. At first we thought everyone was dead, there were people on the floor and hunched over in their seats, but the environment is intact and work, and they are mostly unconscious. I have gone directly to the bridge and we’ve woken the Captain. He has no idea what happened, they were investigating what he calls a ripple, and then nothing till we woke him. We’re going to look at the logs and see if what happened has been recorded.”

“Very good.”

Fifteen minutes possibly longer passed when he reported back, not exactly in the serious manner I would expect. “You are not going to believe this, sir, but the ship has just travelled a distance that would normally take them several months, in less than an hour. They were at Jupiter, sir, but that was, according to their log, no more than two hours ago.”

© Charles Heath 2021

NaNoWriMo – April – 2023 — Day 29

“The Things We Do For Love”

What is a love story without a happy ending?

It’s just all the trials and tribulations in between that make it seem like it’s all too much effort with nothing but pain and misery punctuated by a few moments of utter delight.

I’m sure a story where everything works like clockwork might have been easier, but the thought of having some meaty characters standing between them and ultimate happiness was more interesting.

The idea of Emile, or the Turk, being an affable person, was modelled on Sidney Greenstreet, a rather interesting actor in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s, and I’d just seen his performance in The Maltese Falcon.

When I first started the story, I wanted Michelle to have a secret, but at the time, it wasn’t for her to be a prostitute, simply a fashion model who fell in with the wrong crowd and got into trouble with drugs and the high life.

But that wasn’t interesting enough.  By that time, I was dabbling in the thriller genre, and realised I couldn’t write a Mills and Boon-type book, so it veered into thriller territory.

Who doesn’t like a guy who wants to rescue a fallen angel?

Why not make the fallen angel an avenging angel?  Her friends help her escape, and then she decided to help her friends escape to the freedom she fleetingly had, and now, determined, would have again.

But, the idea of freedom and the actual getting of it are two entirely different concepts.  400 pages worth of angst, setbacks, love found, and love lost, the love found again.  Henry might be a little too naïve, but he had to be to provide the extreme contrast in backgrounds and notions of what life is like.

Words written 3,914, for a total of 111,685

I go missing for a day, and…

It’s like dying a literary death.

The silence is deafening.

It seems, after a lot of trial and error, trying this that and the other, I’ve discovered that you only get out of social media what you put into it.

And it means that unless you are on it 24 hours a day, every day, spruiking, or whatever it is we writers are supposed to do promoting ourselves and our work, nothing happens.

Don’t get me wrong, there are those who are raging successes, and I am happy for them.

But for us living on the fringe, and there is quite a lot of us, trying valiantly to reach the public eyes, the battle is just that, a battle.

When do you get time to write?

Is it a choice between writing, or trying to garner support and a following?

The authors who are published by the large publishers will tell you that it is the only way to become an author, where all of the marketing is done by the publisher and all they have to do is put in an appearance and pocket the royalties.

I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

But when I find that happy medium between marketing and writing, I’ll let you know.

Until then, I guess there will be more days like today, and that battle going on in your head that is telling you to give up, it’s never going to get any better.

Maybe not.

But give up? Not today, nor tomorrow.

After all, we live in a world where anything is possible.

The cinema of my dreams – I always wanted to go on a treasure hunt – Episode 61

Here’s the thing…

Every time I close my eyes, I see something different.

I’d like to think the cinema of my dreams is playing a double feature but it’s a bit like a comedy cartoon night on Fox.

But these dreams are nothing to laugh about.

Once again there’s a new installment of an old feature, and we’re back on the treasure hunt.

A late picnic

We spoke no more of bloodlines, and instead spread out the surprises she had brought.  Cheeses, cured meats, her mother’s creation learned long ago in the mother country, and wine from their Italian winery.

As a quirk of fate, she had lined the basket with old copies of treasure maps, and after indulging in the food and wine, looked them over. 

There were six different maps, each with a different detail as to where the treasure might be buried.  One had it on the edge of the lake, a lake by the way that had now disappeared, another at the foot of the hills, identified by a cutting high above the spot.

Another was on the mountainside, after following a track alongside the non-existent lake and past several buildings, one appearing to be a church.

I knew where that church was, not almost a ruin, but it was not alongside a lake or anything that might have been a lake in the past.  Or it could have been another church, definitely a ruin and gone, in a different place.

This was the problem interpreting maps that were drawn, purportedly, in the late eighteenth century when the land would be pristine and roamed over by native Americans.  It was why some of the maps had the word Seminole on them, to identify the land, perhaps, or the people. 

While I should have been listening to the history, I didn’t, and therefore missed the fact that a lot of the Indians had died out before the pirate captain arrived with his treasure, or whatever he might have buried, if in fact, he came at all.

I was beginning to have doubts.

Of course, the Spaniards were lurking around those parts too, and they were all about treasure, especially that stolen from South America but that was centuries before.  Was the pirate captain Spanish or part Spanish perhaps?

Questions, nothing but questions.

“Those coins that were found of the coast.  Were they Spanish?”

“Good question.”

“It seems the Spaniards were here, once upon a time.  Anything is possible.”

The joke, or irony, would be that if there was a treasure, it was off a Spanish ship that ran aground in a storm off the coast, and all of the maps and rumors were true, but for a very different reason.

That brought to mind a recent discovery of coins elsewhere in Florida, and I couldn’t help thinking that Boggs had also heard about the discovery and had conjured up in his mind that the treasure his father had been seeking existed and had embarked on this odyssey.

“I’ve got a couple of metal detectors,” Nadia said.  “Maybe we should go wandering along the shoreline and see what there might be.”

“I’m sure it’s been done to death already.”

She smiled.  “I’ve got nothing better to do, have you?”

“Sleeping in.”

“You can do that when you’re dead.  Until then, there’s a treasure to be found.  I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning, about 10ish.”

Treasure!  I was beginning to hate it.

She tossed the leftovers into the basket and dragged herself off the floor when we finished up.  “I’ll let you get back to work.”

© Charles Heath 2020-2022

An excerpt from “Mistaken Identity” – a work in progress

The odds of any one of us having a doppelganger are quite high. Whether or not you got to meet him or her, or be confronted by them was significantly lower. Except of course, unless you are a celebrity.

It was a phenomenon remarkable only for the fact, at times, certain high-profile people, notorious or not, had doubles if only to put off enemies or the general public. Sometimes we see people in the street, people who look like someone we knew, and made the mistake of approaching them like a long lost friend, only to discover an embarrassed individual desperately trying to get away for what they perceive is a stalker or worse.

And then sometimes it is a picture that looms up on a TV screen, an almost exact likeness of you. At first, you are fascinated, and then according to the circumstances, and narrative that is attached to that picture, either flattered or horrified.

For me one turned to the other when I saw an almost likeness of me flash up on the screen when I turned the TV on in my room. What looked to be my photo, with only minor differences, was in the corner of the screen, the newsreader speaking in rapid Italian, so fast I could only translate every second or third word.

But the one word I did recognize was murder. The photo of the man up on the screen was the subject of an extensive manhunt. The crime, the murder of a woman in the very same hotel I was staying, and it was being played out live several floors above me. The gist of the story, the woman had been seen with, and staying with the man who was my double, and, less than an hour ago, the body had been discovered by a chambermaid.

The killer, the announcer said, was believed to be still in the hotel because the woman had died shortly before she had been discovered.

I watched, at first fascinated at what I was seeing. I guess I should have been horrified, but at that moment it didn’t register that I might be mistaken for that man.

Not until another five minutes had passed, and I was watching the police in full riot gear, with a camera crew following behind, coming up a passage towards a room. Live action of the arrest of the suspected killer the breathless commentator said.

Then, suddenly, there was a pounding on the door. On the TV screen, plain to see, was the number of my room.
I looked through the peephole and saw an army of police officers. It didn’t take much to realize what had happened. The hotel staff identified me as the man in the photograph on the TV and called the police.

Horrified wasn’t what I was feeling right then.

It was fear.

My last memory was the door crashing open, the wood splintering, and men rushing into the room, screaming at me, waving guns, and when I put my hands up to defend myself, I heard a gunshot.

And in one very confused and probably near-death experience, I thought I saw my mother and thought what was she doing in Rome?

I was the archetypal nobody.

I lived in a small flat, I drove a nondescript car, had an average job in a low profile travel agency, was single, and currently not involved in a relationship, no children, and according to my workmates, no life.

They were wrong. I was one of those people who preferred their own company, I had a cat, and travelled whenever I could. And I did have a ‘thing’ for Rosalie, one of the reasons why I stayed at the travel agency. I didn’t expect anything to come of it, but one could always hope.

I was both pleased and excited to be going to the conference. It was my first, and the glimpse I had seen of it had whetted my appetite for more information about the nuances of my profession.

Some would say that a travel agent wasn’t much of a job, but to me, it was every bit as demanding as being an accountant or a lawyer. You were providing a customer with a service, and arguably more people needed a travel agent than a lawyer. At least that was what I told myself, as I watched more and more people start using the internet, and our relevance slowly dissipating.

This conference was about countering that trend.

The trip over had been uneventful. I was met at the airport and taken to the hotel where the conference was being held with a number of other delegates who had arrived on the same plane. I had mingled with a number of other delegates at the pre conference get together, including one whose name was Maryanne.

She was an unusual young woman, not the sort that I usually met, because she was the one who was usually surrounded by all the boys, the life of the party. In normal circumstances, I would not have introduced myself to her, but she had approached me. Why did I think that may have been significant? All of this ran through my mind, culminating in the last event on the highlight reel, the door bursting open, men rushing into my room, and then one of the policemen opened fire.

I replayed that last scene again, trying to see the face of my assailant, but it was just a sea of men in battle dress, bullet proof vests and helmets, accompanied by screaming and yelling, some of which I identified as “Get on the floor”.

Then came the shot.

Why ask me to get on the floor if all they were going to do was shoot me. I was putting my hands up at the time, in surrender, not reaching for a weapon.

Then I saw the face again, hovering in the background like a ghost. My mother. Only the hair was different, and her clothes, and then the image was going, perhaps a figment of my imagination brought on by pain killing drugs. I tried to imagine the scene again, but this time it played out, without the image of my mother.

I opened my eyes took stock of my surroundings. What I felt in that exact moment couldn’t be described. I should most likely be dead, the result of a gunshot wound. I guess I should be thankful the shooter hadn’t aimed at anything vital, but that was the only item on the plus side.

I was in a hospital room with a policeman by the door. He was reading a newspaper, and sitting uncomfortably on a small chair. He gave me a quick glance when he heard me move slightly, but didn’t acknowledge me with either a nod, or a greeting, just went back to the paper.

If I still had a police guard, then I was still considered a suspect. What was interesting was that I was not handcuffed to the bed. Perhaps that only happened in TV shows. Or maybe they knew I couldn’t run because my injuries were too serious. Or the guard would shoot me long before my feet hit the floor. I knew the police well enough now to know they would shoot first and ask questions later.

On the physical side, I had a large bandage over the top left corner of my chest, extending over my shoulder. A little poking and prodding determined the bullet had hit somewhere between the top of my rib cage and my shoulder. Nothing vital there, but my arm might be somewhat useless for a while, depending on what the bullet hit on the way in, or through.

It didn’t feel like there were any broken or damaged bones.

That was the good news.

On the other side of the ledger, my mental state, there was only one word that could describe it. Terrified. I was looking at a murder charge and jail time, a lot of it. Murder usually had a long time in jail attached to it.

Whatever had happened, I didn’t do it. I know I didn’t do it, but I had to try and explain this to people who had already made up their minds. I searched my mind for evidence. It was there, but in the confused state brought on by the medication, all I could think about was jail, and the sort of company I was going to have.

I think death would have been preferable.

Half an hour later, maybe longer, I was drifting in an out of consciousness, a nurse, or what I thought was a nurse, came into the room. The guard stood, checked her ID card, and then stood by the door.

She came over and stood beside the bed. “How are you?” she asked, first in Italian, and when I pretended I didn’t understand, she asked the same question in accented English.

“Alive, I guess,” I said. “No one has come and told what my condition is yet. You are my first visitor. Can you tell me?”

“Of course. You are very lucky to be alive. You will be fine and make a full recovery. The doctors here are excellent at their work.”

“What happens now?”

“I check you, and then you have a another visitor. He is from the British Embassy I think. But he will have to wait until I have finished my examination.”

I realized then she was a doctor, not a nurse.

My second visitor was a man, dressed in a suit the sort of which I associated with the British Civil Service.  He was not very old which told me he was probably a recent graduate on his first posting, the junior officer who drew the short straw.

The guard checked his ID but again did not leave the room, sitting back down and going back to his newspaper.

My visitor introduced himself as Alex Jordan from the British Embassy in Rome and that he had been asked by the Ambassador to sort out what he labelled a tricky mess.

For starters, it was good to see that someone cared about what happened to me.  But, equally, I knew the mantra, get into trouble overseas, and there is not much we can do to help you.  So, after that lengthy introduction, I had to wonder why he was here.

I said, “They think I am an international criminal by the name of Jacob Westerbury, whose picture looks just like me, and apparently for them it is an open and shut case.”  I could still hear the fragments of the yelling as the police burst through the door, at the same time telling me to get on the floor with my hands over my head.

“It’s not.  They know they’ve got the wrong man, which is why I’m here.  There is the issue of what had been described as excessive force, and the fact you were shot had made it an all-round embarrassment for them.”

“Then why are you here?  Shouldn’t they be here apologizing?”

“That is why you have another visitor.  I only took precedence because I insisted I speak with you first.  I have come, basically to ask you for a favour.  This situation has afforded us with an opportunity.  We would like you to sign the official document which basically indemnifies them against any legal proceedings.”

Curious.  What sort of opportunity was he talking about?  Was this a matter than could get difficult and I could be charged by the Italian Government, even if I wasn’t guilty, or was it one of those hush hush type deals, you do this for us, we’ll help you out with that.  “What sort of opportunity?”

“We want to get our hands on Jacob Westerbury as much as they do.  They’ve made a mistake, and we’d like to use that to get custody of him if or when he is arrested in this country.  I’m sure you would also like this man brought into custody as soon as possible so you will stop being confused with him.  I can only imagine what it was like to be arrested in the manner you were.  And I would not blame you if you wanted to get some compensation for what they’ve done.  But.  There are bigger issues in play here, and you would be doing this for your country.”

I wondered what would happen if I didn’t agree to his proposal.  I had to ask, “What if I don’t?”

His expression didn’t change.  “I’m sure you are a sensible man Mr Pargeter, who is more than willing to help his country whenever he can.  They have agreed to take care of all your hospital expenses, and refund the cost of the Conference, and travel.  I’m sure I could also get them to pay for a few days at Capri, or Sorrento if you like, before you go home.  What do you say?”

There was only one thing I could say.  Wasn’t it treason if you went against your country’s wishes?

“I’m not an unreasonable man, Alex.  Go do your deal, and I’ll sign the papers.”

“Good man.”

After Alex left, the doctor came back to announce the arrival of a woman, by the way she had announced herself, the publicity officer from the Italian police. When she came into the room, she was not dressed in a uniform.

The doctor left after giving a brief report to the civilian at the door. I understood the gist of it, “The patient has recovered excellently and the wounds are healing as expected. There is no cause for concern.”

That was a relief.

While the doctor was speaking to the civilian, I speculated on who she might be. She was young, not more than thirty, conservatively dressed so an official of some kind, but not necessarily with the police. Did they have prosecutors? I was unfamiliar with the Italian legal system.

She had long wavy black hair and the sort of sultry looks of an Italian movie star, and her presence made me more curious than fearful though I couldn’t say why.

The woman then spoke to the guard, and he reluctantly got up and left the room, closing the door behind him.
She checked the door, and then came back towards me, standing at the end of the bed. Now alone, she said, “A few questions before we begin.” Her English was only slightly accented. “Your name is Jack Pargeter?”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“You are in Rome to attend the Travel Agents Conference at the Hilton Hotel?”


“You attended a preconference introduction on the evening of the 25th, after arriving from London at approximately 4:25 pm.”

“About that time, yes. I know it was about five when the bus came to collect me, and several others, to take us to the hotel.”

She smiled. It was then I noticed she was reading from a small notepad.

“It was ten past five to be precise. The driver had been held up in traffic. We have a number of witnesses who saw you on the plane, on the bus, at the hotel, and with the aid of closed circuit TV we have established you are not the criminal Jacob Westerbury.”

She put her note book back in her bag and then said, “My name is Vicenza Andretti and I am with the prosecutor’s office. I am here to formally apologize for the situation that can only be described as a case of mistaken identity. I assure you it is not the habit of our police officers to shoot people unless they have a very strong reason for doing so. I understand that in the confusion of the arrest one of our officers accidentally discharged his weapon. We are undergoing a very thorough investigation into the circumstances of this event.”

I was not sure why, but between the time I had spoken to the embassy official and now, something about letting them off so easily was bugging me. I could see why they had sent her. It would be difficult to be angry or annoyed with her.

But I was annoyed.

“Do you often send a whole squad of trigger happy riot police to arrest a single man?” It came out harsher than I intended.

“My men believed they were dealing with a dangerous criminal.”

“Do I look like a dangerous criminal?” And then I realized if it was mistaken identity, the answer would be yes.

She saw the look on my face, and said quietly, “I think you know the answer to that question, Mr. Pargeter.”

“Well, it was overkill.”

“As I said, we are very sorry for the circumstances you now find yourself in. You must understand that we honestly believed we were dealing with an armed and dangerous murderer, and we were acting within our mandate. My department will cover your medical expenses, and any other amounts for the inconvenience this has caused you. I believe you were attending a conference at your hotel. I am very sorry but given the medical circumstances you have, you will have to remain here for a few more days.”

“I guess, then, I should thank you for not killing me.”

Her expression told me that was not the best thing I could have said in the circumstances.

“I mean, I should thank you for the hospital and the care. But a question or two of my own. May I?”

She nodded.

“Did you catch this Jacob Westerbury character?”

“No. In the confusion created by your arrest he escaped. Once we realized we had made a mistake and reviewed the close circuit TV, we tracked him leaving by a rear exit.”

“Are you sure it was one of your men who shot me?”

I watched as her expression changed, to one of surprise.

“You don’t think it was one of my men?”

“Oddly enough no. But don’t ask me why.”

“It is very interesting that you should say that, because in our initial investigation, it appeared none of our officer’s weapons had been discharged. A forensic investigation into the bullet tells us it was one that is used in our weapons, but…”

I could see their dilemma.

“Have you any enemies that would want to shoot you Mr Pargeter?”

That was absurd because I had no enemies, at least none that I knew of, much less anyone who would want me dead.

“Not that I’m aware of.”

“Then it is strange, and will perhaps remain a mystery. I will let you know if anything more is revealed in our investigation.”

She took an envelope out of her briefcase and opened it, pulling out several sheets of paper.

I knew what it was. A verbal apology was one thing, but a signed waiver would cover them legally. They had sent a pretty girl to charm me. Perhaps using anyone else it would not have worked. There was potential for a huge litigation payout here, and someone more ruthless would jump at the chance of making a few million out of the Italian Government.

“We need a signature on this document,” she said.

“Absolving you of any wrong doing?”

“I have apologized. We will take whatever measures are required for your comfort after this event. We are accepting responsibility for our actions, and are being reasonable.”

They were. I took the pen from her and signed the documents.

“You couldn’t add dinner with you on that list of benefits?” No harm in asking.

“I am unfortunately unavailable.”

I smiled. “It wasn’t a request for a date, just dinner. You can tell me about Rome, as only a resident can. Please.”

She looked me up and down, searching for the ulterior motive. When she couldn’t find one, she said, “We shall see once the hospital discharges you in a few days.”

“Then I’ll pencil you in?”

She looked at me quizzically. “What is this pencil me in?”

“It’s an English colloquialism. It means maybe. As when you write something in pencil, it is easy to erase it.”

A momentary frown, then recognition and a smile. “I shall remember that. Thank-you for your time and co-operation Mr. Pargeter. Good morning.”

© Charles Heath 2015-2021

The A to Z Challenge – 2023 — Y is for Yellow

When I woke up that morning it was like every other day.  Everything was familiar.  Except…

The first thought that popped into my head was a question, “Why did I walk through the blue door?”

Usually, it was those few minutes when the aches and pains of old age were something to look forward to the moment I got out of bed.


The blue door?

Here’s the thing.  I don’t remember walking through a blue, or other coloured door.  When I thought about it, it had been in a dream where, the night before, I had wished I could go to a place where the pain was negligible, and, more importantly, the family were at peace instead of at war, over, of all things, our father’s will.

I hadn’t thought that money would be everyone’s first thought, but I was wrong.  I guess the amount he left behind was large enough to fuel that inherent monster in all of us, greed.

Being the only one not motivated to dispute the will, and being the principal beneficiary, I was over it, and in fact was ready to wipe my hands of the whole business, and let the lawyers take most if it in fees, leaving the rest with next to nothing.

All of it had come to a head and good old-fashioned pugilism.  Blows were exchanged, words that couldn’t be taken back, said, and threats made.  What was meant to be a congenial meeting of family members to discuss the will, very quickly degenerated into a disaster.

No surprise then that I would metaphorically step through any coloured door to escape reality.  There had been a green door, a red door, a blue door, a yellow door and a brown door.  Blue was my favourite colour.

OK, so another fragment of the dream returned while I was staring at the ceiling and thinking it was not like that the last time I looked.  Each of the doors represented a different outcome in my life.  Then I realised the MC, dressed in a ring master’s outfit, yes, there was a circus element.

Obviously, my mind wanted to go somewhere, anywhere but where I was right then.

I looked sideways at the form that had burrowed under the blankets, not the sort of thing Margret, my wife of many long-suffering years did.  She hated my family to begin with and we had distanced ourselves from them.  It was not a thing I did to please her, I hated them too.

Having come back to nurse my father to the grave, the last six months had been difficult.  The relatives, known and obscure, had come from everywhere, smelling blood in the water.

Her hand was on the pillow, and I gave it a squeeze.

A head popped put, a smile, and then shock.  Not hers, mine.

It was her younger sister Margery.

“What the hell,” I said.  “What are you doing here?”

I remembered having a think for Margery before I met Margaret and had been resentful and bitter when Margaret stole me away.  But, as a first love, she had never quite left my mind.

“Have you been dreaming again?  Yesterday you thought you’d turned into your father.”

Good Grief.  Behind the blue door was one of my fantasies.  I shook my head.

“Where’s Margaret?”

“Forgetful too it seems.”  She sighed as if this was normal for me.  “She died two years ago.  Cancer.  I came back to see how you were, and you were broken.  Then I discover you had this crush, so we gave it a fling.  Married last year, don’t regret it, just hated Margaret more for stealing you.”

My dreams summarised in seven sentences.

“OK.  That sounds about right for me.  What about Dad?”

If my life with Margaret was over then everything else could be changed.  I could only hope.

“Still hanging by a thread, knowing the longer he drags it out the more he can torment the family.  It’s going to be a blood bath at the will reading.  God, I hate money.  Can’t live with it, can’t live without it.”

“Isn’t that women for men and men for women?”

She punched me in the arm.  “Don’t try and make me feel better.  On the other hand,” she leaned over and kissed me.  “Please make me feel better.”

It was the one thing I remembered about Margery, how much fun it could be with her.  She was one of the few what you see is what you get girls and I had loved her quite intensely until Margaret came along and turned me into the dull and responsible version that my father approved of.

That was when my two brothers both irresponsible troublemakers abused the privilege of their position, squandered their inheritances, and then went cap in hand to our father for support and instead got disinherited.  Now, knowing what he was worth they were like Hyenas circling their prey, waiting to swoop.

I wasn’t going to burst their bubble by telling them that disinherited meant no recognition in the will.  I’d seen a copy where the bulk of the estate was left to the responsible one, me.  They got nothing.

Margery was right.  It was going to be a bloodbath.

I visited my father every day.  He had been a heavy smoker and suffered because of it.  Now breathing was almost impossible and the cancer was going to kill him.  Did he regret any part of his life or anything he did?  No.  What was the point?  You do the best you can.  There’s always someone telling you what you did was wrong, but there’s no such thing as being perfect.

Except for our mother, his first wife, was perfect. And I agreed with him.

He was looking better.  To me, that meant the end was close, that short period of remission before death.  Time to order up the priest to administer the last rights.  He might have been a bastard and a crook, but he was also steadfastly religious.

“The jackals were in.  Never saw a worse pair than those two.  Their mother would be ashamed to call them hers.:

“No.  She had a higher degree of tolerance than you.  She expected more of me, like you, but they could do no wrong.  In a way it was her fault they turned out the way they did.  Are you sure you want to cut them out?”

“Teach them a lesson.  They’re survivors.  People like them always are.  You can take pity on them if you want, but once you open the door you won’t be able to close it.

That conversation was different, but then so was the woman I was married to.  Perhaps there was some sort of joke in this alternate universe, that my father just shunted all of his problems into me.

If the blue door was what I wanted rather than what I had, the red door was hell.  I mean, it was a red door.  What was I expecting?

The green door was all sweetness and light, everyone was sickly kind and thoughtful without a hint of discord and enmity.  Even my father was the epitome of generosity and kindness.

Behind the brown door was a void.  It was like stepping from the light into the dark.  There was no one but the voices in my head, and if I’d stayed there too long, I would have gone mad.

That left the yellow door.  There was a reason why I’d been dragged three ought each, leaning more about the people I knew or thought I did, and in an odd sort of way discovering more about myself.

I knew that I’d spent most of my life compromising, taking the easy way, doing what was expected of me and not what I wanted.  I guess that was what life was meant to be like.  So few of us ever got to do what we wanted, mainly because we couldn’t afford to, and that was basically it.  Money ruled our lives.

I looked at that yellow door for a long time, believing it was going to be more of the same.  A horrible father, obtuse relatives, greedy little sycophants who’d willingly sell their souls to the devil for 20 pieces of silver.

Did I want to see more about a life I should have had and didn’t get?

And there it was, the yellow door beckoning, and who was I to resist?

I opened the door and went in.  It was a room, with a desk, two chairs on opposite sides of the table, and a sign on the back wall that said, “Please sit”.  Below that was a two-way mirror, that only reflected one way.

An interview room in a police station?

Five minutes later a door opened beside the mirror and a woman came through.

My mother.

Or a very young version of her, before my memories of her started.  I had not known she was so beautiful, or blonde.

I said nothing but watched her sit, then when settled, smiled.

“Well, Walt, this is a fine kettle of fish.”

Metaphors?  Who was this woman?

“Why am I here, and just to be clear, you are my mother.”

“Perhaps, perhaps not.  This is your imagination, Walt, and I could be anyone.  But, you have used a memory of your mother.”

“So, you do know about me?”

“More than I care to, but yes.  You’ve come to a crossroads in your life, and you have to make a decision that will affect the rest of it.  You can choose to live or you can choose to die.  You’ve always made the right choice, Walk.  Always.  Quite often to your detriment, or to please others, while all the time suppressing your hopes, wishes and desires.  Admiral but depressing.”

She was right.  But it wasn’t that simple.

“I had no choice.”

‘You always had a choice, Walt.  You just chose the most expedient.  Like marrying Margaret rather than Margery.  Of course, you knew that was a huge mistake.  So did your father and I which is why we paid Margaret to steal you away before Margery’s bad ways destroyed you, like she was destroying herself.  You loved Margery, I know, but love was never going to be enough.  You needed solid and dependable.  That was Margaret.”

“What else did you do?

“Too many to be listed.  Just be assured we did it for your own good.  And, fortunately, it had led you here, now.  I guess if your father hadn’t been the bastard he was, we wouldn’t be here, but he was dependable like that.  And lazy, leaving all his messes for you to fix up.”

“Like my bothers?”

“Nice boys, but utterly useless.  We knew that from the moment they could speak.  You were our only hope, Walt.  Those two, all the love in the world was never going to fix them, and that’s apparent now in spades.  You must look after them, Walt.  Your father wouldn’t, but you are not your father.”


‘You’ve been planning to leave her.  She’s financially independent and will have no claim on the inheritance.  Like I said, we gave her a fortune, so you can leave.  Find someone else.”


“If you can find her.  Last we knew of her whereabouts, it was a commune in Tibet, or on the side of a mountain.”  She shrugged.  “That PA of yours, Ms Pendle, she seems a good sort.  “has a thing for you, too.”

Ms Pendle was a little too staid for me.  But then, perhaps I was the same and didn’t realise it.

“Right, enough yammering Walk.  Time to go.”  She stood.  “Just remember, the future, your future, is n your hands, no one else’s.”

I woke, in the same bed, in the same house, looking at the same roof, and when I looked on the other side of the bed, the same hidden form with a hand on the pillow.

I touched it, thinking it might be Margery, but it was Margaret.

I watched her wake and wondered if it was true, she had been paid to get me away from Margery.

“You were late in last night.”

“I was with my mistress.”

She snorted.  “You, with a mistress?”  She shook her head.  “When did you become a comedian?”

I decided on a change of subject. “Did my parents pay you to get me away from Margery?”

The smile disappeared and a frown appeared on her face.  “Who told you?”

“Mother, just before she died.  Wanted to go with a clear conscience.”

She thought about what sort of answer to give me, then said, “It was the right thing to do.  They wanted you to have a future, not flame out before you were 35.  Margery would have killed you, Walt.”

“Well, your job is done.  I made it.  Today is the first day f the rest of my life, and while you may be in it, it will not be as my wife.  I thank you for your service.”

“To be honest, I thought you’d divorce me long before this.  I did love you, you know.  I guess we just sort of grew out of love in the end.”

It seemed so, well, I had no idea what it seemed like.

“What are you going to do with the family?”

“Annuities.  They live within their means or go to hell.”

“And you?”

“First day and all, Margaret.  I have no idea.”

It was odd to discover Margaret had a case packed and ready to go, she had for a long time.  Everything else she owned; she didn’t want.  It would be, she said, like taking her memories with her, and she was past that.

We had a last breakfast together, one last kiss, and she was gone.  No, she wasn’t parting with the Audi A5.

I was going to go into the office but decided not to, and instead called the lawyers and for the next hour told them what I wanted done.

Then, I went out onto the patio, put on some melancholy jazz, and stretched out in one of the sunbeds, my last thought before dozing off, was the endless possibilities of what I was going to do.

I was lost in a mist, going upriver in a boat, slowly wending towards the mountains.  It had started out very warm, and the further inland we went the closer it got.  I had the feeling I was not alone on the boat, the figures were indistinct shadows, flitting about in the background.

Then it started to rain, and I woke with a start.

I realized I was at home and the automated sprinkler system had started.

When I went to get up, I realised something or someone was holding my hand and a looked over.


“What are you doing here?”

“My, my, Walt.  I thought you would be more pleased to see me.”

“I am.  But…”

” Margaret called me about a week ago.  She told me what had happened all those years ago and apologised.  She said you two were splitting up, and if I wanted to get first in line, I’d better get my butt home.  I just knew she had something to do with splitting us up.  Not that it wasn’t a good idea, I was in a bad place then.”


“Now I know better.  And the best thing about it.  We have a lot of years to catch up, perhaps it will take the rest of our lives.  Never stopped loving you, Walt.  Not for a minute.”

“Nor I you.  I was just coming to find you.”

“Then everything is as it should be.  Now, let’s get out from under these sprinklers before one or other, or both of us get pneumonia.”

©  Charles Heath  2023

An excerpt from “The Things We Do For Love”; In love, Henry was all at sea!

In the distance he could hear the dinner bell ringing and roused himself.  Feeling the dampness of the pillow, and fearing the ravages of pent up emotion, he considered not going down but thought it best not to upset Mrs. Mac, especially after he said he would be dining.

In the event, he wished he had reneged, especially when he discovered he was not the only guest staying at the hotel.

Whilst he’d been reminiscing, another guest, a young lady, had arrived.  He’d heard her and Mrs. Mac coming up the stairs, and then shown to a room on the same floor, perhaps at the other end of the passage.

Henry caught his first glimpse of her when she appeared at the door to the dining room, waiting for Mrs. Mac to show her to a table.

She was about mid-twenties, slim, long brown hair, and the grace and elegance of a woman associated with countless fashion magazines.  She was, he thought, stunningly beautiful with not a hair out of place, and make-up flawlessly applied.  Her clothes were black, simple, elegant, and expensive, the sort an heiress or wife of a millionaire might condescend to wear to a lesser occasion than dinner.

Then there was her expression; cold, forbidding, almost frightening in its intensity.  And her eyes, piercingly blue and yet laced with pain.  Dracula’s daughter was his immediate description of her.

All in all, he considered, the only thing they had in common was, like him, she seemed totally out of place.

Mrs. Mac came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron.  She was, she informed him earlier, chef, waitress, hotelier, barmaid, and cleaner all rolled into one.  Coming up to the new arrival she said, “Ah, Miss Andrews, I’m glad you decided to have dinner.  Would you like to sit with Mr. Henshaw, or would you like to have a table of your own?”

Henry could feel her icy stare as she sized up his appeal as a dining companion, making the hair on the back on his neck stand up.  He purposely didn’t look back.  In his estimation, his appeal rating was minus six.  Out of a thousand!

“If Mr. Henshaw doesn’t mind….”  She looked at him, leaving the query in mid-air.

He didn’t mind and said so.  Perhaps he’d underestimated his rating.

“Good.”  Mrs. Mac promptly ushered her over.  Henry stood, made sure she was seated properly and sat.

“Thank you.  You are most kind.”  The way she said it suggested snobbish overtones.

“I try to be when I can.”  It was supposed to nullify her sarcastic tone but made him sound a little silly, and when she gave him another of her icy glares, he regretted it.

Mrs. Mac quickly intervened, asking, “Would you care for the soup?”

They did, and, after writing the order on her pad, she gave them each a look, imperceptibly shook her head, and returned to the kitchen.

Before Michelle spoke to him again, she had another quick look at him, trying to fathom who and what he might be.  There was something about him.

His eyes, they mirrored the same sadness she felt, and, yes, there was something else, that it looked like he had been crying?  There was a tinge of redness.

Perhaps, she thought, he was here for the same reason she was.

No.  That wasn’t possible.

Then she said, without thinking, “Do you have any particular reason for coming here?”  Seconds later she realized she’s spoken it out loud, had hadn’t meant to actually ask, it just came out.

It took him by surprise, obviously not the first question he was expecting her to ask of him.

“No, other than it is as far from civilization, and home, as I could get.”

At least we agree on that, she thought.

It was obvious he was running away from something as well.

Given the isolation of the village and lack of geographic hospitality, it was, from her point of view, ideal.  All she had to do was avoid him, and that wouldn’t be difficult.

After getting through this evening first.

“Yes,” she agreed.  “It is that.”

A few seconds passed, and she thought she could feel his eyes on her and wasn’t going to look up.

Until he asked, “What’s your reason?”

Slight abrupt in manner, perhaps as a result of her question, and the manner in which she asked it.

She looked up.  “Rest.  And have some time to myself.”

She hoped he would notice the emphasis she had placed on the word ‘herself’ and take due note.  No doubt, she thought,  she had completely different ideas of what constituted a holiday than he, not that she had actually said she was here for a holiday.

Mrs. Mac arrived at a fortuitous moment to save them from further conversation.

Over the entree, she wondered if she had made a mistake coming to the hotel.  Of course, there had been no possible way she could know than anyone else might have booked the same hotel, but realized it was foolish to think she might end up in it by herself.

Was that what she was expecting?

Not a mistake then, but an unfortunate set of circumstances, which could be overcome by being sensible.

Yet, there he was, and it made her curious, not that he was a man, by himself, in the middle of nowhere, hiding like she was, but for very different reasons.

On discreet observance whilst they ate, she gained the impression his air of light-heartedness was forced and he had no sense of humor.

This feeling was engendered by his looks, unruly dark hair, and permanent frown.  And then there was his abysmal taste in clothes on a tall, lanky frame.  They were quality but totally unsuited to the wearer.

Rebellion was written all over him.

The only other thought crossing her mind, and rather incongruously, was he could do with a decent feed.  In that respect, she knew now from the mountain of food in front of her, he had come to the right place.

“Mr. Henshaw?”

He looked up.  “Henshaw is too formal.  Henry sounds much better,” he said, with a slight hint of gruffness.

“Then my name is Michelle.”

Mrs. Mac came in to take their order for the only main course, gather up the entree dishes, then return to the kitchen.

“Staying long?” she asked.

“About three weeks.  Yourself?”

“About the same.”

The conversation dried up.

Neither looked at the other, rather at the walls, out the window, towards the kitchen, anywhere.  It was, she thought, almost unbearably awkward.

Mrs. Mac returned with a large tray with dishes on it, setting it down on the table next to theirs.

“Not as good as the usual cook,” she said, serving up the dinner expertly, “but it comes a good second, even if I do say so myself.  Care for some wine?”

Henry looked at Michelle.  “What do you think?”

“I’m used to my dining companions making the decision.”

You would, he thought.  He couldn’t help but notice the cutting edge of her tone.  Then, to Mrs. Mac, he named a particular White Burgundy he liked and she bustled off.

“I hope you like it,” he said, acknowledging her previous comment with a smile that had nothing to do with humor.

“Yes, so do I.”

Both made a start on the main course, a concoction of chicken and vegetables that were delicious, Henry thought, when compared to the bland food he received at home and sometimes aboard my ship.

It was five minutes before Mrs. Mac returned with the bottle and two glasses.  After opening it and pouring the drinks, she left them alone again.

Henry resumed the conversation.  “How did you arrive?  I came by train.”

“By car.”

“Did you drive yourself?”

And he thought, a few seconds later, that was a silly question, otherwise she would not be alone, and certainly not sitting at this table. With him.

“After a fashion.”

He could see that she was formulating a retort in her mind, then changed it, instead, smiling for the first time, and it served to lighten the atmosphere.

And in doing so, it showed him she had another more pleasant side despite the fact she was trying not to look happy.

“My father reckons I’m just another of ‘those’ women drivers,” she added.

“Whatever for?”

“The first and only time he came with me I had an accident.  I ran up the back of another car.  Of course, it didn’t matter to him the other driver was driving like a startled rabbit.”

“It doesn’t help,” he agreed.

“Do you drive?”

“Mostly people up the wall.”  His attempt at humor failed.  “Actually,” he added quickly, “I’ve got a very old Morris that manages to get me where I’m going.”

The apple pie and cream for dessert came and went and the rapport between them improved as the wine disappeared and the coffee came.  Both had found, after getting to know each other better, their first impressions were not necessarily correct.

“Enjoy the food?” Mrs. Mac asked, suddenly reappearing.

“Beautifully cooked and delicious to eat,” Michelle said, and Henry endorsed her remarks.

“Ah, it does my heart good to hear such genuine compliments,” she said, smiling.  She collected the last of the dishes and disappeared yet again.

“What do you do for a living,” Michelle asked in an off-hand manner.

He had a feeling she was not particularly interested and it was just making conversation.

“I’m a purser.”

“A what?”

“A purser.  I work on a ship doing the paperwork, that sort of thing.”

“I see.”

“And you?”

“I was a model.”


“Until I had an accident, a rather bad one.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

So that explained the odd feeling he had about her.

As the evening had worn on, he began to think there might be something wrong, seriously wrong with her because she didn’t look too well.  Even the carefully applied makeup, from close up, didn’t hide the very pale, and tired look, or the sunken, dark ringed eyes.

“I try not to think about it, but it doesn’t necessarily work.  I’ve come here for peace and quiet, away from doctors and parents.”

“Then you will not have to worry about me annoying you.  I’m one of those fall-asleep-reading-a-book types.”

Perhaps it would be like ships passing in the night and then smiled to himself about the analogy.

Dinner now over, they separated.

Henry went back to the lounge to read a few pages of his book before going to bed, and Michelle went up to her room to retire for the night.

But try as he might, he was unable to read, his mind dwelling on the unusual, yet the compellingly mysterious person he would be sharing the hotel with.

Overlaying that original blurred image of her standing in the doorway was another of her haunting expressions that had, he finally conceded, taken his breath away, and a look that had sent more than one tingle down his spine.

She may not have thought much of him, but she had certainly made an impression on him.

© Charles Heath 2015-2020